“For me, the perfect pop song is super simple, and it has really honest lyrics. I think that’s all you need; three chords and the truth.”
Trying to draw a coherent line from street punks The Ducky Boys through to South Californian indie-pop group Walter Etc. might seem nigh-on impossible.
There’s certainly little commonality between the two acts – one a brusque punk n’roll band from Boston, the other a breezy and infectious ensemble from The Golden State – yet the idea of ‘Three Chords and the Truth’ is something that fits both nicely. For The Ducky Boys, it refers to the title of their third album. For Walter Etc., and songwriter Dustin Hayes, it relates to the perfect pop song.
“I always say I write three chords and the truth,” considers Hayes. “It’s obviously an understatement, but it makes so much sense. For me, the perfect pop song is super simple, and it has really honest lyrics. I think that’s all you need; three chords and the truth.”
Such a notion came to Hayes after seeing the cover of The Ducky Boys album as a young teenager. Having never listened to the album, it’s regardless an idea that has embedded itself in Hayes’ philosophy when it comes to song-writing.
However, there’s more than three chords and the truth about Walter Etc.’s exceptional ‘Gloom Cruise’, released last year on Lauren, Lame-O and Hayes’ own Making New Enemies labels. It certainly captured our attention at Already Heard, making our list of best ten albums you might have missed.
With the group about to embark on their debut European tour it seemed like the ideal time to catch up with Hayes about all things ‘Gloom Cruise’, writing pop songs for nihilists, and finally making it overseas. “We’ve all been to Europe at some point in our lives, but never with the band, so we’re stoked to explore, via the music,” explains Hayes. “It’s taking us to some towns we would otherwise want to go to, so we’re all really excited.
“I’m really excited to play the UK – pretty much all over – but I’m stoked to be able to play London and Glasgow, just because I think there are some people there that have been wanting to see us, and I think the energy would be pretty cool. At least I hope!” laughs Hayes.
Yet, while expectation is growing, Walter Etc. are not an overnight success, building on the considerable groundwork laid under the moniker Walter Mitty and His Makeshift Orchestra.
Formed in 2009, WMHMO played more folk-punk inspired indie-pop than the broad spectrum pop appeal of Walter Etc. – even though they are unmistakably the same band. Much of this is to do with Hayes’ distinctively laid-back and warm vocals but, with personnel changes, a desire to push the songwriting even further, and the possible legal threat from Hollywood regarding the Walter Mitty name, Hayes decided a new name was needed to signify a fresh start.
“The group that was Walter Mitty, by the end of it, was all my best friends from childhood and me – and it never felt like it could be anything else but that group of guys and that acoustic folk-punk kinda sound,” says Hayes. “A bunch of the guys weren’t able to keep playing music for a while because of jobs and schools and stuff, and I was like ‘I need to give the band kind of a reboot’ – I can’t stop playing music.
“So Kris [Schobert – drums] and I decided to abbreviate the name – the long name had always been the bane of our existence anyway – not to mention a lawsuit because of the Walter Mitty movie that came out.
“I had a bunch of these electric songs that would never have fit with the old band, but we could start playing them now with the new band and have this sort of evolution of the band. So not like a whole different band, but more of a revamp.”
Like the music, there’s also a lyric growth that helps differentiate the two projects. ‘Gloom Cruise’ possesses an array of characters, from the ‘Stumptown Summer Heartthrob’ to the Peace Corps home girl Petunia (‘Petunia, You’re Home’). Wryly observed and perfectly articulated, they’re a menagerie of personalities that convey a wealth of feelings and emotions.
“A lot of the Walter Mitty songs are young adult and kinda angsty, and all about ‘I’ – me – with the pronoun ‘I’ all over the place, and it’s all super literal and specific,” considers Hayes. “With ‘Gloom Cruise’ I wanted to create a character with Petunia, or imagery, or more poetic abstract lyrics – like in ‘All Connotations’. So, just like wanting a fresh start with the music, I wanted to see what I could do lyrically, besides introverted folk-punk.”
It’s a decision that paid off handsomely. Produced by Jeff Rosenstock – a hero of Hayes’ since Bomb The Music Industry! – ‘Gloom Cruise’ is an album steeped in Californian pop charm, yet possesses a world-weary eye and deep and meaningful insights. Working with Rosenstock – himself an artist whose profile has risen exponentially over the last three years – helped smooth the rough edges from Walter Etc.’s fledgling new sound.
“At first I was pretty star-struck,” laughs Hayes. “The first day or two I was pretty embarrassed as he knew our songs and would play them on the piano, and he knew the lyrics, and he’d tell us some ideas he had. I was in awe. I was like ‘I cannot believe Jeff Rosenstock is playing MY songs to ME’.
“He has such a gentle approach to giving criticism or giving ideas without trying to step on your toes. And the thing I really learned from him was giving a song or an album dynamic range – which he does so well in his music – but I know in my music, I don’t have a tonne of dynamic range. So he stepped in and showed me how I could really add some things to the record – or take stuff away.”
“I was in awe. I was like ‘I cannot believe Jeff Rosenstock is playing MY songs to ME.”
That Hayes can see such flaws is testament to his ability to look for signs of growth and improvement. It also adds to the rough-hewn charm of Walter Etc.’s pop songs. These aren’t glossy pop-punk songs, rather whipsmart indie-rock songs with a pop aesthetic.
This humbleness can be seen in other parts of Hayes’ life too. To fund the UK trip, he sold a series of paintings titled ‘Eight Normies and an Alt Femme’. The eight normies refer to enormous canvases of WMHMO/Walter Etc.’s alligator logo, painted by Hayes. The alt femme, a giant canvas of a snail, again drawn by Hayes. Indicating the enthusiasm for the artwork, they sold out in less than 48 hours.
“I was shocked,” laughs Hayes. “I’m not a great painter, but I think it’s more what the logo means to people, rather than the painting itself. It was cool that people were kind enough to pitch in and help the band in that way.”
DIY to the core – from the self-produced videos for ‘Baby Blue Hammock’ to the alligator and snail paintings and numerous pieces of album artwork – there’s very much a sense that Walter Etc. value the art above all else. The band is a vehicle that has allowed them to travel, first to Northern California, then state-wide and now to Europe, and later in 2018 to Japan. As we conclude our conversation, Hayes sums the sentiment up perfectly:
“There’s definitely this idea of art for art’s sake, and enjoying the process and seeing what can come from keeping that mentality. I think that resonates with a lot of people, and they appreciate that kind of approach. And, you know, it’s gotten us this far.”
It has indeed. And, by the time the European concludes in three weeks, expect lots more people to be in love with a normie crocodile or an alt femme snail…
Walter Etc. play the following UK shows:
25 Sticky Mike’s, Brighton*
26 Sebright Arms, London*
27 Bloc, Glasgow*
28 Peer Hat, Manchester
29 Subside, Birmingham
* with The Pooches
‘Gloom Cruise’ by Walter Etc. is out now on Lauren Records, Lame-O Records and Making New Enemies.
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)